Libraries, Technology, and Politics

As Texas State Librarian Mark Smith notes, it used to be a pundit commonplace that digital technology and the Internet were rapidly displacing libraries, books, or even reading. The cliche is less common now, but has occasionally surfaced in recent months at City Hall – especially during City Council discussions of Austin Public Library funding. Council Member Don Zimmerman likes to brandish his smartphone and declare that everything he needs to know is contained therein. Other council members more specifically criticize spending on the new Central Library, and suggest that it's extravagant or that too little attention is being paid to the branches.

To the first charge, librarians characteristically respond that while formats change from time to time, reading isn't going anywhere. APL Director Brenda Branch reports that while the use of electronic materials is indeed spiking – "We had a one-year increase of 38 percent" – the use of hard-copy materials has remained robust, and the main issue for planners is how to anticipate the balance among formats. She also recounts the transitioning issues – from VHS tapes to DVDs, for example, or vinyl recordings to CDs (and back again?) – that hardly arise among the permanent book collection. Branch notes that in planning the new library's technological infrastructure and public tech/gaming areas, the librarians have bided their time: "As a matter of fact, we are just deciding now what technology to use, because it changes so quickly."

Library consultant Joan Frye Williams says that the real division in the culture is not between "online" and "book" readers, "it's between readers and nonreaders ... and reading is alive and well." Her research finds that students, for example, use "almost entirely electronic stuff for homework," but have simultaneously increased their recreational reading of books. ("What's gone away are the reference books, encyclopedias.") "It's more a product choice than a dominant technology," Williams says. "The real deal is 'diversified' rather than 'replaced.'"

A recent New York Times story ("The Plot Twist: E-Book Sales Slip, and Print Is Far From Dead," by Alexandra Alter, Sept. 23) reported that digital book sales have declined recently while current book sales reflect "the surprising resilience of print." Steve Bercu of Austin's BookPeople told the Times that 2015 has been the store's best sales year yet (up nearly 11% over last year). "The e-book terror," Bercu said, "has kind of subsided."

The APL's current systemwide circulation statistics confirm the pattern. During budget meetings, Branch presented skeptical council members with the comparable circulation numbers for [a year spanning] 2014-15. Circulation of the library's e-books was an impressive 507,818 – but that number was dwarfed by the book circulation: 3,622,970. Overall, the total circulation statistics essentially disarmed Council arguments that the libraries aren't being used.

A somewhat related Council criticism was that the APL is overemphasizing the Central Library at the expense of the neighborhood branches. Branch and Facilities Process Manager John Gillum respond that the system has steadily built, expanded, or remodeled branch libraries to coincide with community demand and regular bond funding schedules. "I have spent my career building branch libraries," says Gillum. "Every time a bond election came up, they'd fund another seven or so. ... Thanks to the 2012 election, we're renovating, like, eight branch libraries – making them like new."

More broadly, professional librarians insist that a library "system" of branches is only as strong as its trunk: the Central Library and its collections, which are drawn on daily by branch customers. "The Central Library is the hub and the heart of the system," said Branch. "The branches ... the biggest [book] collection is 63,000. ... The collection is as good as that main library collection [currently 300,000] [and] the Central Library is the heart of all our technology, that's where our network is, and the infrastructure for our technology. So without that infrastructure, the branches just wouldn't have that technology available to them."

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